from the heart of jerusalem

What keeps it all together is Torah study, always


Many years ago at a parlor meeting of the coalition for the Israeli soldiers missing in action, someone spoke about a close friend with whom he had both studied and gone to war: Yehuda Katz. Along with Zack Baumel and Tzvi Feldman, Katz, missing in action since the battle of Sultan Yaakov during the Lebanon war in June 1982, studied in Yeshivat Kerem Be’Yavneh.

Kerem Be’Yavneh is one of a number of special yeshivot whose boys combine their yeshiva studies with army service in combat units. As the war began, the boys received word in the yeshiva that buses would arrive in thirty minutes to take them up north. Time was of the essence as this was an elite tank unit whose services were desperately needed on the front lines.

As they were rushing to get back to the buses with their kits, Yehuda told one of his buddies to make sure the bus didn’t leave without him as he had to run to the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes, one of the men decided to go looking for him. As his friend approached the men’s room, he saw Yehuda coming out of the beitmidrashand break into a run. Not understanding why Yehuda had a made a detour to the beitmidrashwhen they were so pressed for time, Yehuda explained he had gone there to learn Torah for a few minutes, because as a Jewish soldier in a Jewish army going off to fight a war in defense of the Jewish people, “you don’t go to war from the bathroom.”

I often wondered what it was that Yehuda chose to study in those brief moments. But what most challenges me about this story is how, on the brink of war, in the midst of heading off to battle, Yehuda Katz was able to turn it all off and sit down to learn five minutes of Torah?

This week’s parsha, Bechukotai, contains one of the most difficult and painful sections in the Torah. Known as the Tochacha, or rebuke (admonition), in these 30 verses (VaYikra 26:14-43) the Torah describes the series of horrendous calamities that will befall the Jewish people should they fail to live up to their mission as a holy people and a light unto the nations.

But before the Torah delineates what will go wrong when we do not heed the word of G-d, it first specifies all the blessings we will merit if we do live up to our responsibilities as a people.

“If you will follow in the path of my statutes, and safeguard my commandments, and fulfill them, then I will give your rains in their time, and the land will give forth its bounty, and the tree of the field will yield its fruit.”(26:3-4) In other words, if we do right by G-d, then G-d will do right by us. 

Rashi, at the beginning of our parshasuggests: “If you will follow in the path of my statutes”: This obviously cannot be speaking about the fulfillment of the commandments, because this is the next part of the verse: “and safeguard my commandments, and fulfill them,” rather, this means [quoting the midrashhere] you shall toil in the study of Torah … because this will allow you to keep and fulfill the mitzvoth.” (26:3)

In other words, the condition upon which the economic prosperity the Torah seems to promise is predicated is not on the fulfillment of the commandments but rather the study of Torah necessary in order to fulfill the mitzvoth.

Why is the study of Torah so important? And not just the study of Torah, but toilingover the study of Torah!

Just as the Jewish people are about to enter the land of Israel, Hashem commands Yehoshua: “Let the Torah not depart from your mouth, and you shall learn (meditate on) it day and night, so that you may fulfill all that is written therein, and have success.”

The Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim Gerondi, in Tractate Nedarim 8a) understands this to mean that a person should always be learning Torah: day and night and every minute. 

Maimonides (Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:8) however, understands this to mean a person should set times to study Torah, day and night. Even the saying of the Shema morning and evening allows one to fulfill this obligation.

The question is asked: Why is this mitzvah, which seems so central to Jewish living, only given us in the book of Yehoshua after the Torah is complete? Why are we not given this mitzvahat Sinai?

This makes sense according to the Ran. Think about it: For 40 years in the desert what else did the Jews have to do besides learn Torah all day? According to rabbinic legend, they received manna from heaven and water from the magic well of Miriam; they had no work to speak of, so after receiving the Torah they had 40 years with which to immerse themselves in study.

But now, as they were about to enter the land of Israel, it would no longer be so simple. They had to fight and conquer the Canaanite nations, and then they had to conquer, divide, and harvest the land. So it makes sense that Hashem now warns Yehoshua to take care, lest Torah be forgotten in the shuffle. At this point, with special dispensation to desist from constant study in order to conquer the land, Hashem reminds Joshua not to forget that one must always be studying, whenever the special dispensation of conquest does not apply.

Perhaps because the Torah wants us to understand that leaving the house of study to fulfill a mitzvahis not desisting from Torah, it is actually living it. The real challenge is not to learn Torah in a study hall, it’s to live Torah everywhere, in the boardroom and the bedroom, and even on the battlefield.

Hence, if we want to live a life of meaning and purpose, joy and reward, we must, as Rashi suggests, toil in Torah. We are challenged to infuse everything we do with the study of Torah, so that whether we are playing basketball or conduct business, “the Torah never departs from our lips” and we are still learning Torah. 

This is what has kept the Jewish people true to the path we set out on so long ago, and the reason we are finally back home, in the land of Israel, tilling the soil, patrolling the borders, and yes, studying the same Torah our ancestors did all those years ago.

Shabbat shalomfrom Jerusalem.